The Measure of All Things

I rebel against meters and liters. I will never give up my ounces and inches. Though I may gain weight, you will never take away my pounds. If I go outside today, it will feel like 87 degrees, not 30. A base-10 world is a very cold place to live.

Part of my problem is that I didn’t grow up metric. I see a sign that says, “Leipzig 274 Kilometers” and I have to translate it into miles before I can figure out what I want to know — when will we get there? How long does it take to drive a kilometer? Even though the spedometer is measuring our speed in kilometers per hour, I’m still doing a lot of math to figure it out. A mile a minute is a much handier yardstick.

But it’s not just that the metric system is a foreign language to me. My main objection is that people just don’t think metrically. Intellectually, I know that a meter is one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. But this means nothing to me. Tell me how long it would take me to walk to the North Pole and I will understand.

Traditional measures like feet and miles are based on a humanframe of reference: a foot is obviously the length of a man’s foot. A mile is mille passus, a thousand paces (a pace being about 5 feet). An inch is about a thumb, a yard is from the tip of my nose to the tip of my fingers. Nobody carries around a tapemeasure or a  measuring cup. We pace off a room to measure it, measure drinks in fingers. As Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things.

A unit of measure should be appropriate to what is being measured. In a large city we measure distance in blocks, not miles. When I’m going on a road trip, I’m more likely to measure distance in hours. When giving directions, I might use traffic lights. If I’m describing distance in outerspace, it is easier to conceptualize 38 million school buses end to end than 238,700 miles, or to say that it’s ten trips around the equator.

I would like to see all measurements converted into a standard that everyone can immediately grasp. For example, people losing weight often feel discouraged by how slowly the kilograms come off, or how quickly the kilocalories pile up:

Jill: Wow! You look great! How much weight have you lost?

Jackie: So far, 9.3 kilograms.

Jll: I wish I could lose some kilograms. Yesterday alone I gained 907 grams because I ate an extra 7000 kilocalories. But have you seen Kelly? She’s lost 44.5 kilograms!

It’s easier to feel you’ve made progress, or see how badly you’ve messed up, if we put the conversation in real-world terms:

Jill: Wow! You look great! How much weight have you lost?

Jackie: So far, 143 Big Macs.

Jill: I wish I could lose a few cheeseburgers. Yesterday alone I gained about a quart of Ben and Jerry’s. But have you seen Kelly? She’s lost an entire Nicole Richie!

When it comes to time and effort, students and teachers speak entirely different languages. A more realistic system of measurement would make communication much more efficient:

Student: How many points is this assignment worth?

Teacher: Ten.

Student: Only ten points? It’ll take me an hour to look up all these answers!

Teacher: Maybe you should have spent 20 minutes on it every day, as I recommended. Then it won’t take you an entire weekend to study for the final.

Minutes and points mean little to a teenager. Other things matter more:

Student: How many quizzes is this assignment worth?

Teacher: A tenth of a quiz — one homework.

Student: Only a tenth of a quiz? It’ll take me 130 text messages to look up all these answers!

Teacher: Maybe you should have spent a Family Guy rerun on it every day, as I recommended. If you do this every night, it won’t take you an entire Law and Order marathon to study for the final.

Some things lack any scale of measurement. If we use the ‘man is the measure of all things’ scale, this problem is solved:

Darrell: So, that’s my idea. I guess it’s not very good.

Larry: Not good? It’s a terrible idea. Really, really bad. What happened? Your ideas are usually excellent.


Darrell: So that’s my idea. I guess it’s about a six-beer idea.

Larry: Six beers? It’s a six-shot idea. It’s a six-times over the legal limit idea! What happened? Your ideas are usually double latte.

Well, this is perhaps a three-beer idea. Considering that one Dax is only about half of a linebacker, it’s definitely less than espresso.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Everett
    Jul 09, 2010 @ 14:57:46

    I completely agree, but the problem lies in understanding of speech. Your entry highlights what neuroscience has been uncovering for decades: we relate to observations while everything is memorization of past observations. So when we recount in meters living in a customary world, we are recalling what someone else said, wrote down, or we calculated; we are not relating or understanding the words being used. We of course cannot do away with metric observations (they are easy to work with mathematically), but we can understand the difference between a measurement and an actual observation. I like to see it as the difference between our present understanding of reality and our evaluated-modeled view; they are always blending but never quite the same.


    • escher dax
      Jul 09, 2010 @ 15:51:25

      You’re right — metrics make scientific calculations much easier. I’m being humorous here, but I believe that the lack of an understandable reference is one of the main reasons we Americans resist the metric system. It’s odd because we have a decimal monetary system, while the English, who more or less have gone metric, have resisted the Euro.


      • Everett
        Jul 09, 2010 @ 16:09:48

        Let’s move even more philosophical since this has caught my attention and there is not a definitive answer. We Americans, as you say, use a decimal monetary system. This seems to encourage that we would like to know how much we have and have ways of easily tracking the ever changing worth we assign to things. Understanding how or why we spend money seems to be the least of our concerns, but we surely want to monitor it. Now the Britons like to answer and bicker over hows and whys which requires them to have a more sophisticated way of doing so. Money is something they like to hold on to and have increase. They may care enough to know the total, but not enough to have it in constant fluctuation. They are the banks while we are the economy.

        p.s. I will always assume you are being humorous. Please do the same in return.

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